Bobby is a sixteen-year-old father who has taken on the responsibility of caring for his infant daughter all on his own. He doesn’t get any help from his mom, his brothers have moved away, and his dad lives on the other side of town. Told in sparse, feeling first-person, the book interchanges between ‘then’ and ‘now’ (‘now’ being when Bobby has an infant daughter to take care of and ‘then’ being mostly in the year prior). I was hooked right from the first page.
Every time I passed The First Part Last in the library, I had the strong impression that it wanted to be read, and when I saw that it was the winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, that sealed the deal—Coretta Scott King, of course, was married to Martin Luther King Junior, and I highly recommend the book Stride Toward Freedom (about the Montgomery bus boycott of December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956) for a revitalized glimpse into the sort of courageous, loving, and incredible people that they were (that, however, is for another post). I could have devoured The First Part Last in one sitting—as it was, I devoured it all in one day, and this despite repeated efforts to close the book and attend to other things. No matter what, it always ended up back in my hands (at one point I was holding the book in one hand and stirring a bubbling pot of pasta with the other—I couldn’t put it down). Not knowing much about it going in had a real effect on how the bits and pieces of the story came together, and I want to leave that option open for prospective readers—but I do want to say that reading about a teenage father taking care of his baby, staying up with her all night, changing diapers, getting up three hours before school to bus her to the sitter, and just loving her so much was absolutely something else; “…then I know I’m being a man, not just some kid who’s upset and wants his way. I’m being a man” (this line comes right at the moment in the story when he decides to keep her). So many things about this book stayed with me long after reading it.
“Jo never knew how it happened, but something got into that story that went straight to the hearts of those who read it, for when her family had laughed and cried over it, her father sent it, much against her will, to one of the popular magazines, and to her utter surprise, it was not only paid for, but others requested. Letters from several persons, whose praise was honor, followed the appearance of the little story, newspapers copied it, and strangers as well as friends admired it. For a small thing it was a great success, and Jo was more astonished than when her novel was commended and condemned all at once. “
I don’t understand it. What can there be in a simple little story like that to make people praise it so?” she said, quite bewildered.
“There is truth in it, Jo, that’s the secret.”
— Louisa May Alcott
One of the delights of Little Women (and subsequent books in the series) (among many) is the parallel drawn between Jo’s literary attempts and Alcott’s own literary triumph (a sort of art imitates life scenario). It is the “simple little story” that Jo eventually writes that finally propels her to fame and garners her the high praises of the masses (sometimes too much so, as we see in a comedic sketch of Jo hiding in her own home—unsuccessfully—from a barrage of ‘adoring’ fans). Likewise it is Alcott’s simple tale that has etched her name in history as a literary icon and has kept her relevant for over 150 years.
I’d like to tell a few stories that come from a few library resources, and what they mean when you put them all together.
Story number one is from Oliver Sacks’ incredible book Seeing Voices. Seeing Voices is broken up into two parts—the first of which deals with the history of American Sign Language and the struggle for language acquisition among Deaf children before its inception. One part that stood out for me was the suppression of Sign and the locking out of Deaf persons from some (ergo catastrophic) decision making about Deaf education near to the end of the 19th century; “More and more, English became the language of instruction for Deaf students, taught by hearing teachers, fewer and fewer of whom knew any sign language at all.” The second half of the book is about the fight for a Deaf president at Gallaudet University. If you haven’t heard of it, Gallaudet was the first Deaf university in the world and it’s a pretty big deal. The first Deaf president of the school, I. King Jordan, came into power in 1988. But here’s the story I most wanted to share from this book, it’s about two prelingually Deaf boys: Joseph (age 11), and Manuel (age 9). Both boys had reached (what in context was) an advanced age to have reached without learning any language—they were preteens, and completely languageless. In the first case, Joseph was overlooked in his own family (regarded as unintelligent, with “no real attempt” ever taken to teach him language). In the second case, although there was still a hefty communication barrier, Manuel “was much loved by his parents and older siblings and trusted by them with all sorts of tasks.” When both of these boys were given the chance to enter the world of language via formal education, Manuel learned Sign rapidly; “there was doubt as to whether he would acquire language fluidly at his age, but he has done brilliantly, and in three months, has already acquired fair sign and fair Italian, loves both languages, loves communicating, and is full of questions, and curiosity, and intellectual vitality.” For Joseph, the going was slow, and language acquisition came more strenuously. Although he did develop some Sign and was good with visual problems, he was not able to formulate questions, let alone formulate responses to them (one couldn’t ask him what he had done over the weekend, for example):